An Amazing Underwater Classroom in the Gulf of Mexico

4 – minute read

crane on barge
The first of six artificial reef "villages" was lowered into the Gulf of Mexico by crane March 1.

Drive 15 miles from the Florida Gulf Coast University campus to the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Field Station in Bonita Springs, then boat out into the Gulf of Mexico to find the university’s newest, and wettest, classroom. 


The Water School at FGCU has created an underwater classroom and recreational spot known as Kimberly’s Reef. Located 8.06 nautical miles southwest of New Pass, it will be used for education, public fishing and scientific research on water quality and marine life. The philanthropically funded reef is named in memory of a little girl named Kimberly Anne, who died of cancer. Her father led the fundraising efforts through the Vester Field Station Community Advisory Board.


The project is spearheaded by Mike Parsons, Water School professor and field station director. Once installation is complete, the reef will be composed of six “villages” he helped design. Each village is made up of three concrete culverts, and each culvert weighs about 22,000 pounds and measures 11 feet wide, 6 feet tall and 7 feet deep, with 6-8-inch-thick walls. Villages 1 and 4 were placed March 1 and are spaced roughly 220 feet apart.

artificial reef culvert
Each culvert measures 11 feet wide, 6 feet tall and 7 feet deep.

“The limited research we have suggests most fish will only move so far off the reef to forage elsewhere to pick off clams and nip at seagrasses. If two villages are too close together, it becomes one big forage area. You need to spread them out, so they have their own pastures,” Parsons says.


Spanning 11 acres, Kimberly’s Reef will be utilized mainly by students and faculty in environmental studies and marine science. But Parsons sees the benefit to those in other disciplines, including entrepreneurship, engineering, education and art. 

Interdisciplinary collaboration on the project has already begun. During the reef planning phase, a group of education students joined Parsons and his team to create environmental lesson plans for K-12 classrooms.
Patricia Fay, Bower School of Music & the Arts professor, and one of her students made settlement tiles for advance testing on the reef. The plates are designed to simulate natural surfaces corals settle on. Fay hopes to secure additional funding to make ceramic enhancements that would affix to the reef. “We’re looking at sculptures, but it can’t just be pretty,” Parsons explains. “It has to be functional and survive in a saltwater environment with wave action, which will inform future art projects.”
crane on barge dropping artificial reef
Kimberly's Reef will be used for education, public fishing and scientific research.

In addition to the interdisciplinary possibilities of Kimberly’s Reef, Parsons and his team will conduct research into events currently plaguing Southwest Florida waters. On the day the first six culverts were placed, Parsons saw dozens of dead red drum fish, likely killed by red tide, near the shoreline.


“That’s another thing we’re interested in looking at, why certain fish are vulnerable,” he said. “It’s not always going to be redfish. At another time, you might see a lot of dead mullet, so what is that vector of exposure to the toxin?”

culverts on a barge in the Gulf of Mexico
The underwater classroom and recreational spot known as Kimberly’s Reef is 8.06 nautical miles southwest of New Pass.

Beyond questions researchers have about dead fish, Parsons expects his team will utilize Kimberly’s Reef to answer other pressing concerns affecting Southwest Florida. Hurricane Ian stressed the area by stirring up sediment, which has had a lasting impact on water quality. From an underwater platform in a fixed location, FGCU students and researchers will document the effects of hurricanes and storm fronts and study how the Gulf bounces back after these weather conditions hit.


“If you want to come up with solutions, you need to understand the problem first,” Parsons says. “When we talk about water quality, where is the badness coming from? Then you can think of ways to fix it.”

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